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The Fourth Wall

The Fourth Wall

Writers frequently use the term of the "Fourth Wall" in reference to theater or television, when a character breaks the boundary of suspended disbelief and makes reference to the ongoing fictional situation, or interacts directly with the viewer. I was watching the NBC comedy 30 Rock last week and musing about both the tools of the writing craft and travel after one character made a crack about the travel agent community. He had insinuated that the occupation had been made obsolete along with "the CEO of Friendster" and a guy who used to play "dynamite saxophone solos in rock songs." (Catch the episode on Hulu if you can; it was funny.)

Anyway, the gist of the storyline was that writers are similarly becoming outmoded, as the public taste for entertainment continues to skew toward "reality" shows or daft, formulaic plots.

While I had in mind of the plight of writers and travel agents, a few concepts began to coalesce. Narrative devices like flash-forwards, Anton Chekhov's gun, and Hitchcock's McGuffins didn't all have obvious parallels in modern travel. But the Fourth Wall certainly did. Specifically, when we shop and buy travel it sort of feels like we're watching something unfold with a predestined result, doesn't it? (See, I broke it. Just for you.) In the typical online shopping experience even when we check multiple travel sites against one another, we are being sold to in very focused and deliberate ways.

No Voice of Reason, no Pre-eminent Authority is going to emerge from that carefully curated palette of colors, sidebar ads, and hyperlinks to make sense of it all for you. It's kind of like being pushed through a supermarket but only in a certain order and only past certain product displays. You're the one shopping, but, in a way, you're just watching it happen. That Fourth Wall isn't going to get broken unless someone on some side of the experience breaks it.

Have you ever gotten to a point in shopping for travel stuff where you wished someone who knew what you wanted could say the following:

"There are fourteen seats remaining on this flight, at three different price points. I can combine them with four different return options based on the trip times you asked me for—one of which the carrier doesn't want me to do—but I can do it anyway."

Sure you have!—especially on those tight timelines, difficult dates, multi-destination trips, or long hauls. And you're gonna be really happy if you have travel agents like I do in Cristina or Rita (thanks again, you two) on speed-dial to make it happen. Don't think for one second that they don't watch online travel sites like birds of prey—they do. And they can make those websites do things with search and availability that would make their designers blush.

Online travel sites are awesome and everyone uses them. They are convenient. They offer good value for lots of trips. They have a place. But I would have to say that professional travel agents have a place too. In fact, they will continue to occupy a much larger part of our consumer firmament than many once popular fixtures, including relics adept at delivering "dynamite saxophone solos in rock songs."

Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • • Twitter: @tentofortysix